by Sonia Christensen
Luke is getting rid of the dead cat today. It’s been lying there on the side of the road for weeks and now the weather is changing—it’s starting to get warmer and the cat is starting to bloat. Soon the flies will come and the whole thing will be even worse than it already is.
Every time he and Amy walk by the cat, which they do at least once a week, all she can say is that the cat deserves to be put to rest, like all cats deserve to be put to rest. But she won’t touch it. Never again, she says. And before today he wouldn’t touch it either because he decided a long time ago that this is was her deal, the whole cat thing.
He’s told her that he would help her bury the cat if she wanted him to. He said that the first time they walked by and she pointed it out and said, oh god it’s still there. But there’s a traumatic cat incident in her past so instead what they do is cross the road whenever they’re nearing the cat, so they don’t have to get too close and they don’t have to look. But Luke always looks.
On days when Amy isn’t with him, when she’s at work and he has the day off, or she’s with her friends and he’s not invited, or she says she at work or with her friends but he’s pretty sure she’s lying, he walks on the side of the road with the cat and looks closely to see if there have been any changes. He has watched it get buried in snow and reappear. He has watched its fur begin to mat. He has looked up the stages of decomposition and he knows it gets a lot worse from here on out. He has the urge to pry open its eye, while the eye is still and eye, and see what’s going on, see if he can see the real, almighty truth by looking into that dead, glassy sphere.
He has been waiting for Amy to decide when the time was right with the cat, but now he’s starting to think she never will, that she will walk past it until it decomposes into dry bones and still, every time she walks past it just say, oh god it’s still there.
Luke has known that it won’t work out with Amy for at least a year. He’s known since the day she looked at him and said all she was thinking of travelling, or moving to New York, starting over somewhere else. Since day he called her a bitch and she threw her phone against the wall, which was a thing he felt bad about even though she was, she was being a bitch. Since the day they went to the Elijah Wood DJ set and got drunk and yelled at each other on the porch about money. Since the day she threw out all the kitchen supplies she thought they didn’t need and called him a hoarder. Since the first night she didn’t come home. Since the day she met that Jake guy, a month or so ago now. Definitely since that day. But Luke stays with her anyway, and she stays with him, for no really good reason at all.
Amy left for work at eight this morning, tornadoed out of the house hungover and with a cowlick sticking straight up on the back of her head. Last night wasn’t the best. They made mojitos and drank too many of them and then it turned into a fight about politics and he went into the bathroom and flipped the door off because he knew she was standing right behind it, probably texting that guy, that shark. And she yelled at the other side of the door that she was sick of doing this.
So he thought he would do this for her—get rid of the cat that has been bothering her so much, as an apology, as a grand gesture. He has decided that he will go out to the cat at noon. He’s going to do a proper burial, no dumpster. He is going to dig it a little grave behind their apartment building by the creek where no one will mind or likely even notice the small wooden cross that he has constructed for it out of two pieces of scrap wood he’s been hoarding and a nail.
In the morning all he does is brood. That’s what she calls it when he sits around on his days off not working on art or cleaning. Brooding. He gathers his materials—his yellow dish gloves and a spade for digging and a Walgreen’s bag to put the cat in for transport. He gathers them and sets them on the kitchen table and then he watches the clock’s hands approach noon, getting nervous. The cat may be squishy. It may be more decomposed on the underside than it is on the topside. Its eyes could pop right open when he picks it up and places it in the bag. Or, he could get rid of it and then he and Amy will truly have nothing in common, nothing whatsoever.
At 11:45 he goes out. He decides to get a coffee on the way, not so much because he wants coffee but because now that it’s almost time he doesn’t want to deal with the cat just yet. And there’s a girl there who’s young and nice to him.
“Hey stranger,” she says when he arrives.
He asks how it’s going and notices how wide she smiles at him. That’s a real smile. He tells her about the new band he’s been listening to and when she says she’ll check it out he says he’ll make her a cd. It’s not the kind of band you can find on the internet just yet. She seems impressed.
“How’s your girlfriend?” she says.
“Oh, she’s okay I guess.”
“Trouble in paradise?”
“Just the usual stuff.”
She gives him a sympathetic pout and he falls in love instantly and pictures her naked and then pictures what their relationship would be like. From the first drunken sexual encounter to the all the restaurants they would go to together, all the shows. All the bars, all the cars they would ride in. All the parties, all the drinks. All the pot, all the cigarettes. All the fun. And then the inevitable fights, the morning they would wake up and see one another for what they really were and then take forever to break up, and then finally break up and he’d have to start all over, being older, when it would be harder. Jesus, he didn’t want to do all that again. Not ever again.
On the way out of the coffee shop he starts to worry that the cat won’t be there at all. That he’ll get to the spot and find it empty—which should be a relief, but wouldn’t be, not when he has made so many plans around it. Not when he has been picturing how it will be to take Amy out there to the grave and make her love him again. That can happen—you can fall in and out and again in love with someone you’ve been with for three years. You can fall in love again with someone who has the capacity to rip your heart out and smash it flat as a fully decomposed cat on the side of the road, post bloating. You can fall back in love.
He throws his coffee away in a dumpster right before he gets there. He never really wanted it anyway.
The cat is there and still kind of cute in a way. It has white and black fur, and a sweet face, particularly sweet. It’s laying on its side curled up and its left whiskers stick straight up. From the beginning, Luke had the impression that this was a good cat.
Luke puts on the gloves and checks to make sure nobody’s watching. He doesn’t want anyone to see him scooping the cat up off the street. This is a private thing, something combination spiritual and gross and he doesn’t need anyone trying to talk to him or spectating and making side comments or anything like that. There’s no one around. There’s only the deserted mechanic across the street and empty sidewalks, empty streets. Ambient sounds of the city sighing and voices coming from elsewhere, somewhere far away. He positions the bag so when he picks the cat up he can just drop it in without having to mess around.
He slides a hand under the cat’s head and back legs. He lifts, thinking about the weight of the cat, that it is a particularly nice weight for an animal to be, how domestic animals are basically built for a human to love and hold and enjoy the weight of, and then the whole middle part of the cat falls apart. The cat splits into two pieces, a front part and a back part and in the separation maggots spill out. They come out—they come out of the cat and onto the ground, into the electric green of the new grass and they writhe around. Luke drops both parts and flings his hands to get the two or three maggots that are on them off. He yells and silently thanks fate or the universe for there being no one around to hear him scream.
Two years ago, in the winter, when Amy was as young as that girl in the coffee shop, he asked her to marry him. Even though marriage was bullshit and half the population gets divorced and blah blah, all that stuff. Even though marriage was uncool and completely counter to everything he and Amy embodied as a couple, which was the type of love that is basically one big party. But still, he wanted to be with her, when he looked at her he thought he could do this forever, why not. So he took off one of his own rings and put it on her finger, where it was way too big and he asked. Okay, she said, laughing. Why not. They laughed about it in the morning because of course they weren’t going to get married, can you imagine, she said. No, he said, that would be crazy. But he could and he still wanted to. She made him feel so young.
Luke grabs the front half of the cat. He grabs it by the face because he doesn’t want to touch the maggots and he dumps it in the bag as quick as he can. Then he grabs the back half by the tail and the tail comes off. Why, he thinks, why is this happening. He throws the tail in the bag and then the rest of the cat, notices the enduring cuteness of the pads on the bottom of its feet.
The whole way over to the creek he feels like he’s going to die. The weight of the cat in the bag is now a horrible weight, it’s a repulsive amount for a thing to weigh.
He digs the grave with the spade like he planned to, trying not to think about the pieces of the cat in the Walgreen’s bag and how badly this is now going, how this started out as spiritual and gross and is now just gross.
It takes about fifteen minutes to dig a hole big enough for a cat. He deliberates and then throws the whole thing in, still in the bag and fills the hole back in again. The cross is back in the apartment and he goes to get it. He wonders if she’ll be home, although of course she won’t be—she won’t be home until hours later. He would like it if she was. He would like it if he could tell her what happened and if she would kiss him and tell him it was all right. She was never really like that though.
The cross will not stand up straight when he puts it in. He kicks it over and leaves it and then he comes back with a hammer and hammers it in. There, now you’re at rest, he says to the cat.
When she gets home, later than he thought she would, he doesn’t tell her. He wants to but he doesn’t tell her. And he doesn’t ask her why she was late because he knows and he doesn’t even care anymore. She asks what he did all day and he says nothing. Brooded, she says, and he says pretty much. They have a stupid night—she’s on her phone seventy percent of the time and he doesn’t have the energy to ask her what she’s doing, doesn’t have the energy to tell her that he knows, that it’s so obvious and fuck her for not having the courtesy to hide it better. He looks at the part in her scalp when her head is bent, texting, and he wills her to leave. Just do it, just get out of here already.
“You think you could actually call next time?” he says.
“What?” she says.
“Call. You know, pick up the fucking phone if you’re going to be late.”
She blinks at him, confused, mascaraed lashes fanning her beautiful blue eyes. “What is this, 1950? Since when do you want me to call?”
“Forget it,” he says. “I guess I don’t even.”
They walk past the spot where the cat used to be a week later. They cross the street when they near the place where the cat used to be. It is genuinely warm now and if the cat had still been there it would have been disgusting. Luke feels terrible walking by the spot and wonders if there are still little maggot bodies that died there without their cat host. He wonders if the ground is dented in a cat shape. Oh god, it’s still there, Amy says. He looks at her and sees that of course, she’s not even looking. Oh my god, no it isn’t, he thinks. Girlfriend, it obviously isn’t. It’s completely gone.
Sonia Christensen lives and works in Denver, Colorado. Her stories have appeared in Devilfish Review, First Stop Fiction and Confrontation, as well as in a few other journals and magazines.
Read our interview with Sonia about this story.
Her previous story for New Pop Lit was “Joyride.”